Police and judges are starting to use email to fast-track search warrants, a speedy way to enforce driving-while-intoxicated laws and slash onerous wait times that can hinder investigations.
Spokane County is Washington’s first where local judges will receive, read and sign search warrants by email for anything from murder investigations to traffic stops.
“I think it’s huge,” Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Zollars said. “I wish we could have done this a long time ago.”
The idea and planning started with judges in Spokane County District Court. Final approval came after Superior Court judges met and unanimously signed off on the electronic warrants, Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno said.
Several judges have already started, she said.
“It’s sort of a learning process,” Moreno said. “I think the drive now is to become current with the times and process these electronically.”
As county employees worked to write computer code allowing all the law enforcement agencies’ computer systems to talk with each other, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the effort a jolt. The high court ruled in April that officers must have a search warrant to draw a suspect’s blood.
The case, Missouri v. McNeely, centered on the refusal of Tyler McNeely to take a breath analysis test. An officer then took him to a hospital for a blood draw without a warrant.
In an 8-1 ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the Supreme Court ruled that when officers have ample time to obtain a search warrant before alcohol dissipates in the suspect’s bloodstream, the Fourth Amendment “mandates that they do so.”
That ruling conflicts with Washington law that allows officers to obtain blood samples without the suspect’s consent in all felony DUI, vehicular assault and vehicular homicide cases.
As a result of the ruling, many of those investigations may be compromised, Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Stephanie Olsen said.
“It’s affected a large number of those cases all over the state,” Olsen said.
Police prefer blood tests
The ruling will affect cases of driving under the influence of marijuana. A blood test is the only way to determine if someone is too high to drive.
State law allows officers two hours to obtain a blood test to show if a driver is drunk.
If an officer waits that long during a marijuana traffic stop, the case likely would be lost, Olsen said.
“You can have someone who just smoked, but by the time (officers) get the blood they could be below 5 nanograms,” Olsen said, referring to the legal limit per milliliter of active tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive substance in marijuana commonly called THC.
“The clock is ticking. Active marijuana leaves your system very quickly,” Olsen said.
The McNeely ruling also had another secondary effect: It took away presumed guilt if DUI suspects refuse to blow into a breath analyzer, Olsen said.
State law currently allows officers to argue in court that a driver who refuses to take a breath analysis test did so because the driver knew they were drunk. But the McNeely ruling indicates that forcing someone to give a blood draw would violate the Fourth Amendment.
“Therefore … we cannot require you to give up a constitutional protection or use it against you if you refuse to test,” Olsen said. “It’s basically no evidence for us anymore … because we don’t want the cases overturned.”
As a result, the email search warrants couldn’t have come at a better time, she said.
“The blood evidence is very strong evidence for us because it shows alcohol and drugs they may be taking while they are impaired. It’s much more concise evidence,” she said. “Jurors seem to like it better than breath tests.”
The ruling does not change state law that requires medical technicians to take a blood draw.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Sevigney said troopers have blood vials in their cars, but they typically drive the DUI suspects to a hospital to get the blood draws.
“If we respond to a collision on Interstate 90, we use (ambulance) or fire department paramedics at the scene if the person doesn’t need to be transported to the hospital,” Sevigney said.
With the new email warrants, troopers can drive DUI suspects who refuse breath analysis tests to the hospital, write the warrant in the parking lot on their computers and then obtain the blood draw.
“Obviously, with it being done electronically it saves us time,” he said.
Saving time, saving money
Email warrants will help in other cases, too. Detectives would generally write warrants, print them and then drive the paperwork to the on-call judge – oftentimes to the judge’s home – for approval, Spokane police Lt. Mark Griffiths said.
“That’s probably a solid hour of time while the detective is not doing anything of value,” Griffiths said. “During that time, if we have a crime scene to hold or it’s starting to snow … that hour could become more and more significant.”
State law allows officers to call judges and essentially record the conversation in which the officer explains the probable cause that a crime has been committed, which is necessary for a judge to approve a search warrant.
Judge Moreno said local law enforcement used telephone warrants in the 1980s and 1990s, but have since quit the practice of calling.
“The procedure is only as good as the people using it,” Moreno said. “If you don’t use telephonic warrants for a while, you forget how to do them.”
The email warrants will be quicker and may help judges make better decisions, she said.
“I’m speaking for myself, but I would rather have something written in front of me that I can read, review and take my time with rather than have something read to me,” Moreno said.
Zollars, who last fall ended six years of supervising the sheriff’s traffic unit, said email warrants will save taxpayer dollars.
Traffic investigations rely on people giving consent for testing. If a DUI suspect refuses breath analysis, the deputy then must have another deputy watch the suspect to ensure they don’t inject, eat or drink anything while the first deputy writes the warrant and drives it to a judge.
If a deputy can email the warrant from a patrol car computer, “it puts that deputy out on the road sooner,” Zollars said. “In this age of drastically lowered manpower, it will allow us to keep more deputies out on the road and working on the shift.”
Plus, the easier process to obtain warrants will lead to stronger cases, Zollars said.
“It’s obviously better for us to get as much of the best evidence as we can in every case,” he said. “If all you have is poor driving and you don’t have video and no blood or Breathalyzer evidence, what do you have?”